by William H. Benson
February 11, 2016
In September of 1796, President George Washington published a remarkable document, his Farewell Address “to the People of the United States on his declining of the Presidency.”
After two terms as president, he was exhausted, tired of public service, and eager to return to his beloved Virginia plantation at Mount Vernon. When asked to serve a third term, he refused, and six months later he would retire and turn over the president’s duties to John Adams.
In his Farewell Address, Washington listed six concerns about the United States’s future.
First, he pled for unity rather than sectionalism. The people, he said, in the “Northern and Southern, Atlantic and Western” sections could discover their unity in their “love of liberty with every ligament of their hearts,” and in their devotion and obedience to the Constitution.
“With slight shades of difference, you have the same Religion, Manners, Habits and Political Principles. The economies of North and South, the eastern seaboard and the western interior, far from dividing the nation, are complementary.”
The Constitution, he said, “is sacredly obligatory on all.” It is the law, and it is “the duty of every individual to obey it.” Because the people possessed “the power and right to establish Government,” it was “the duty of every individual to obey it.”
The historian Paul Johnson explained Washington’s thoughts this way. “America was a country under the rule of law. With the law, it was everything; without the law, it was nothing.”
Second, Washington feared political factions, those that he called “combinations or associations,” that may “become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust domination.”
He especially feared a faction that would use the amendment process to alter the Constitution to benefit themselves, to push through their own slate of disastrous policies, or to acquire power.
Third, Washington hated political parties, even though he belonged to a party, the Federalists, headed by Alexander Hamilton, that opposed Thomas Jefferson’s Democrat-Republican party.
Washington said, I must “warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally,” and that in those governments “of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.” “The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension . . . is itself a frightful despotism.”
Fourth, Washington urged the people to live exemplary lives. He said, “It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.” In addition, he urged the people to retain a firm commitment to religion. “[R]eason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
Fifth, he encouraged education. “[O]f primary importance,” he said, are those “institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge.”
His sixth and final point is the one that historians most remember. He denounced forming alliances with other countries. “The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible.”
It is astonishing that the first president saw deep into our country’s future and identified those issues that might harm the people’s liberty and put the government’s very existence at risk. He was right.
Sectionalism, his first point above, did rupture the union. Seventy years later President Abraham Lincoln pointed out that the founding fathers had failed to include in their Constitution a process for a state to secede from the Union. He too saw love of liberty and obedience to the Union as co-joined.
The temperance movement in the early twentieth century was an example of a political faction that pushed into law, through the amendment process, a disastrous policy, Prohibition.
Party affiliations—Whigs, Democrats, Republican, Know-Nothing, or Independent—have remained a constant in the political process, and their machinery has determined most elections’ outcome.
Was Washington correct about “entangling alliances?” Today NATO is demanding more commitment from the U.S., and our current President agrees, and has beefed up our commitment there.
In his Farewell Address, George Washington warned Americans, cautioned them, laid bare his fears, pled for unity, and insisted that people obey the Constitution. What is missing from his document?
He fails to reveal any empathy for the disenfranchised. At Mount Vernon his slaves still worked the fields, and upon his passing, his will liberated his household slaves but not his field hands. He chose “willful blindness,” rather than full liberty to all people, and that failing would rip the nation apart.
Still, his document is remarkable and visionary. Monday is Presidents Day. Enjoy the day.